I love dinosaurs. Obviously it all dates back to Jurassic Park for me, as it does for anyone in my generation. I remember owning Jurassic Park sheets before I had ever even seen the movie. We went to see The Lost World: Jurassic Park on a school night because it was such an important event for my family. I had dinosaur wallpaper! But it wasn’t just about the Spielberg stuff. The Land Before Time, We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story, reruns of The Flintstones – I consumed it all. And of course I went through the standard paleontology phase, where I was convinced I would find fossils in the schoolyard during recess (we’ve all been there). Paleontology never took off for me though, and if the new documentary Dinosaur 13 is any indication, that’s probably a good thing.
Dinosaur 13 follows the discovery of “Sue” the Tyrannosaurus rex by paleontologist Peter Larson and his team. Sue is the largest and most complete T. Rex ever discovered, but a series of unfortunate business transactions and ridiculous laws ultimately lead to Sue’s seizure by the government and a criminal trial that threatens to put Larson away for hundreds of years. The story is both a tragic and a scary one, and it is told with such clinical exactness that you can’t help but feel a little attachment.
Director Todd Douglas Miller goes the common route of using talking head interviews to propel the story forward. There is some existing video from the time, but very little extant audio. To fill in some of the gaps, Miller does shoot a couple reenactments with actors (think Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell), but these moments pop up very rarely and so can be kind of distracting when they do occur. Still, this is the closest thing to style that Miller displays in the film, unless you want to include the over-use of subtitles, which often advance the story by years with little to no fanfare. It is actually quite annoying, especially if you’re starting to doze off just a little because you’ve had such a long day.
But this isn’t The Dog – I never fell asleep completely. This is mostly due to how interesting Larson’s story is. The twists and turns transcend Miller’s lack of creativity and Thomas Petersen’s lifeless cinematography. The movie starts as almost a technical manual on fossil excavation, before turning into a pretty gripping legal drama. Even as things wind down toward the conclusion, the tension stays high. This is clearly where Miller (who also edited the film) put most of his focus. In the end the documentary is a love story between Larson and Sue, but it doesn’t hesitate to declare itself so. The parallels drawn between the man and his dinosaur get strained at times, but it is an effective device.
Dinosaur 13 is an interesting look at our inspirations and aspirations and how they define us. It could have used a punch up, but it will definitely be worth your time when it inevitably pops up on Netflix in a few months. At the very least Dinosaur 13 will make you want to watch Jurassic Park again. And that’s never a bad thing.